Mind the Gap

Photo courtesy USCJ

By Rabbi Mauricio Balter

As a young rabbi in Argentina, I recall Israel being an integral component of every community I visited all around the world. Israeli flags would be prominently displayed in the lobby and maps of Israel and pictures representing the Jewish state were proudly plastered all around the building and in the Hebrew schools. Israel was a favorite topic of most rabbis’ sermons and Israel was always a source of great pride. While Israel still has a place in our synagogues, in many communities that place has diminished.

Today, I too frequently hear rabbis lament the difficulty they have in discussing Israel in their sermons. Many find it too tough and divisive a topic to discuss, as there will always be fallout from congregants who are upset by whatever they say. Some members refuse to tolerate the slightest criticism of Israel’s government, while others are upset by their rabbi’s unwillingness to engage seriously with the huge underlying problems the state faces. And as a result, many rabbis prefer to shift their focus from Israel onto something less divisive.

But that strategy is divisive in its own right. Allowing the gap between Israel and world Jewry to widen threatens our people with long-term divisions far deeper and far greater than any shul politics could ever be. The threat posed by this gap is a threat to the very existence of the Jewish people. We must bridge the Israel-diaspora divide before the Jewish people splits into two – a Jewish people and another Israeli People.

Outside of Israel, many Jews maintain only a peripheral connection to Israel and are only vaguely aware of what goes on there. Many view Israel as a once-in-a-lifetime travel destination – not as an essential component in the day-to-day life of the Jewish people. The majority of Jews outside of Israel do not have functional command of the Hebrew language and the very nature of semantics affects their mindset and places a barrier between them and a full understanding of the national discussion in Israel. Additionally, as they don’t have first-hand access to most Israeli media, they get their news second-hand from international sources which rarely portray Israel in a positive light, and focus on conflict, scandals and controversy as opposed to positive content or anything of Jewish interest.

Israel, for its part, holds fast to its dismissive and exclusionary approach towards vast swaths of Jews around the world. The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox monopoly on declaring “Jewishness” and its stranglehold on marriage and conversion precludes the involvement of many Jews from abroad whose Judaism or the Judaism of their children is questioned or denied. Furthermore, most Jews abroad view themselves as politically progressive and see the values of Tikkun Olam and commitment to social causes as a key component of their Jewish identities. With Israel currently led by its most right-wing coalition in its 70-year history, many Jews are troubled by the state’s policies, in particular with concern to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank.

I am a lifelong Zionist and I left my life in South America 23 years ago to make my life in Israel – the Jewish homeland. I believe that it is important for Jews around the world to remember that wherever they may make their homes, their spiritual homeland is always in the State of Israel. While it is neither possible nor realistic for every Jew to make Aliyah, I think we must always hold it up as the ideal towards which to strive and teach that ideal to our children. We must also teach our children Hebrew and send them on programs to Israel so that they see what the country is and the true depth of its value to the Jewish people.

So many programs and youth trips tend to focus on the Holocaust and our people’s dark past. We must rather send our youth to Israel so that they can appreciate our bright future and be inspired by what we have to offer. We need to offer Israeli students a “Birthright” style trip which takes them to communities abroad so they can see that Judaism is thriving around the world, and while it may be different than in Israel, it is alive and well.

While the factors that separate our communities in Israel and abroad are real, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are branches of the same nation whose destinies are intertwined. We must work tirelessly to build bridges between the communities in Israel and around the world for the good of our common future.

Rabbi Mauricio Balter is Executive Director of Masorti Olami and MERCAZ Olami. Born in Uruguay, he made Aliyah in 1995 and has served as a congregational rabbi in Israel. He is proud to have raised his children and grandchildren in Israel, and works tirelessly to support Masorti congregations on six continents.